In the rolling hills of northeastern Massachusetts, 42-year-old Yin Sarun thought he had finally found peace from the nightmares that had haunted him since he fled the killing fields of Cambodia nearly 15 years ago.
It was 1993 and he was starting a new life in this old mill town, as a teacher in the growing community of Cambodian refugees. He had just settled his family into a white clapboard house, and his nightly visions of the rotting corpses of those killed by Khmer Rouge soldiers had begun to fade.But then he noticed something in the local Cambodian-language news-paper that sent him reeling back to the terrors of his homeland.
It was an article by the Khmer Rouge leader Khieu Samphan urging Cambodians to support the Communist group, which brutally ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. As time passed he saw article after article denying the widely held view that the Khmer Rouge had been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands and possibly more than a million Cambodians.
"I thought they were all gone," Yin Sarun recalled thinking of the Khmer Rouge. "After all this time, I am still not free."
More than 15 years after the Khmer Rouge and their radical brand of agrarian Marxism were driven from Cambodia by the Vietnamese army, they are casting a shadow of fear in Cambodian immigrant communities across the United States.
In cities like Lowell, St. Paul and Modesto, Calif., a sense of paranoia and mistrust has been rekindled among refugees who thought they had escaped that world long ago. Former victims talk in hushed tones of Khmer Rouge recruiters seeking donations or political support for their continuing guerrilla war against the Cambodian government. They talk of chance encounters on the street with former Khmer Rouge soldiers. Some talk of anonymous threats and murders, which exist more as rumor than fact.
And they watch with bewildered horror as the Khmer Rouge gain supporters, particularly among the young, among refugees who admire their platform of strong-willed rule and xenophobic hatred of the Vietnamese.
Reattidara-J.R. Loeum, a counselor at Middlesex Community College here, said he once asked 25 high school students how many supported the Khmer Rouge. He was stunned when nearly half the class raised hands. "They just couldn't believe that Cambodians could kill their own people," he said.
During their regime, the Khmer Rouge transformed Cambodia, emp-ty-ing the cities of people, abolishing religion and money, forcing millions into labor camps and embarking on a killing binge.
Since 1979, when the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia set off a flood of refugees, nearly 150,000 Cambodians have settled in the United States. Among them were thousands of Khmer Rouge who fled alongside their victims into the camps in Thailand and then to the United States.
No one knows how many Khmer Rouge retained their ideology here, or how many remain politically active. But they exert a power that transcends their ambiguous numbers, feeding on the poverty and isolation of refugee communities.
"The Khmer Rouge are still active in the United States, and people are afraid," said Craig Etcheson, manager of the Cambodia Genocide Program, a State Department study of Khmer Rouge genocide based at Yale University.
Yin Sarun said that when he talked among strangers, he reminded himself of a slogan he heard daily in the labor camps: "The organization has eyes like a pineapple."
"Everyone knows this saying," he said. "It makes me feel scared and sad at the same time."
The police in several cities with large Cambodian populations say they are unaware of any crimes associated with Khmer Rouge members. But rumors of their presence are so powerful that some gangs have learned to intimidate victims by saying they are Khmer Rouge.
"It's a common threat," said Lt. John Reis of the Providence, R.I., police. "The young kids don't fall for it, but the old do."
When the exodus of refugees began, Lowell, a city of 103,000 people 25 miles northwest of Boston, offered the hospitality of local church groups and jobs at the factories of companies like Raytheon, Wang Laboratories and Digital Equipment. It soon became home to the second-largest Cambodian community in the nation, with about 6,500 people, surpassed only by Long Beach, Calif., with 18,000, according to the 1990 Census.